Reading puts me back together.
I may come home bruised by some sense of futility in my life. Could be something relating to work, but it could also be a sense of domestic ennui. I must read myself clear.
I must read myself into another world. Doesn’t need to be fantasy fiction. Last month, Stephen Markley’s Ohio, a novel about what’s become of people from the Rust Belt, did the trick.
My father once said you could never be bored if you had a good book. He was right.
I haven’t changed. When I was seven I lost myself in American adventure yarns, Westerns or earlier frontier accounts. The young-adult bio of Cochise morphed into Lonesome Dove. But it’s the same me.
My dad also said people are like onions, they grow in layers. He was right about that too.
I talked a few posts ago about my retroactive autodidactic zeal, this after blowing the opportunity of an Ivy League education. I try to keep up with modern literature. I also try to catch up on all those classics I missed, blitzed as I was during years intended for intellectual growth. It’s how I make peace with my past.
It’s a recreation. It’s also a discipline.
When my father died, none of his offspring but me was remotely interested in his set of Dickens. The books sit shoulder to shoulder on a shelf in my office, kept from falling over by a pirate’s head bookend I also had dibs on from Dad’s personal effects.
I’d already read Great Expectations. I now devoured Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers, and Bleak House. Dickens opens up a vast world with that sociologic lens, creating gritty and oft amusing character portraits, detailing industrial London. His appreciation of the travails of the oppressed and grimy poor, and of the absurdity of aristocratic affairs (dramatized well in Bleak House, the ultimate lawyer joke), still enthralls. I’ve found only in Dostoyevsky a like sense of place, his Saint Petersburg swarming with misanthropes, bureaucrats, and army officers.
Most recently I set about reading Nicholas Nickleby and was enjoying it when . . . what did happen?
Let’s say that Reading Overload happened.
Old James Lee Burke’s latest crime thriller, which unlike a heavy hardback could be read lying down with pillows under your head, issued its Siren song. This high school English teacher had to reread whatever he was teaching to refresh his game. A torrent of internet bullshit compromised my attention span for the Victorian classic. At Peregrine Books, Prescott’s only contemporary bookstore, I deployed a gift certificate for two literary magazines (of questionable value) and a Poets & Writers, where one can read about the single sperm cells, of the desperate millions, that manage to impregnate the scarce eggs of New York literary publishing. So now my nose is in magazines. Then more magazines. Issues of The New Yorker are piling up on bedside end-table and office desk. Oh no there’s another one, fresh out of the mailbox. Did I get through the last one?
A man who works maintenance at my school told me five books were written about a great-great-great-grandfather, a Mormon missionary whose toughness and even temper made him a mediator with Native Americans. I begged he give me one, an act of politesse that’s come to haunt me. Sentences like “He saw God’s will and began spreading the Word among the community, much to the discomfiture of some members of his own family,” while palatable to an LDS constituency, stymie this set of eyeballs. If I get to page 100 of the 500-page Jacob Hamblin: Peacemaker, will I deem it safe to bail out and return the tome to this kindly man? He helped me fix my stapler yesterday. I don’t know if he read it, but it’s a family heirloom. He wanted to make sure he gets it back in good shape. I’m guarding it against dog-eared pages and coffee spills.
Over-committing to reading is one of my problems.
Interesting the uninterested is another, and it’s reached cataclysmic proportions. About half the students I have at Mayer High School, where, as a part-timer, I teach senior English (as well as a journalism/yearbook elective), would have to think hard if given a choice between having their teeth drilled and reading anything I give them. My wife says maybe I should retire after this year. She could be right. I could go full time at Walmart. Because the down side of teaching the unteachable gets me so down I don’t think I can do it anymore.
And it’s only one difficult class!
Trying to lead a read-aloud (they won’t read on their own), I stand there, book in hand, and watch as a third of them, sometimes half, drift out the door, ostensibly to go to the rest room. There is nothing I can do. I suppose I could stand there and bellow, exhort, and otherwise whine about the missed opportunity to absorb important literature. I do try to scaffold the reading experience, but when I take a break to help them grok the bracing dialogue between Lady Macbeth and her quailing husband, or the angry, poetic narrative of Paul Baumer, they want me to shut up so they can block their nose and get through the reading. They don’t care if they don’t know what’s being said. They hate reading so much they just want it to be over. When they drift out of the room, as if walking out of a bad movie, I am paralyzed with a personal horror and sense of failure.
I suppose they find me remote. Some old guy who coaches there told me, “You have to find a way to let those low performers learn.”
But how? By removing reading and writing from the curriculum? Utter capitulation — that’s the “answer”? It’s pretty much become policy. In recent decades, during the meth-cooking collapse of any vestige of intellectual culture, English teachers would come to their classrooms to find no kids there. Reading was boycotted. They would go to the Cordes McDonald’s, or to Weights, or FFA, some other classroom where some overworked teacher might shrug and buy their story about how Mr. or Ms. English Teacher doesn’t care.
Nobody expelled those kids, and they’re untouched now. This tiny country school needs all the bodies it can get in order to survive.
A talented, literate woman who left this school to go back to Oklahoma, and whom I met when I was hired last year, gave up on making them read literature. I have considered it and find I can’t do this. Not that I’m so noble. I just wouldn’t know what else to use as rallying points for the all-essential classroom conversation. They also don’t want to write essays, another “given” to this helpless traditionalist. They won’t even free-write. One student, miffed at his succession of low marks, largely because of his refusal to “journal” reactions to Macbeth (which, in his dubious defense, he’s slept through most of anyway), asked whether he could draw pictures in the notebook instead of write words. I am beyond outrage.
I cannot, will not, eliminate English from the classroom so students who hate English can pass. Most of them, long as they do something, will squeak by with D’s. It should be F’s. Maybe I’m acknowledging some vast phenomenon which renders them this way and which is not their fault.
How different from my other 12th grade English class! It’s nice I start the day with it. Or maybe it would be better if it were flip-flopped; maybe my mood would be better if I finished optimistically. All I know is, all the things that blow up in my face third period work like charms in second. It’s a jaw-dropping one eighty. These kids are penning college-level analyses. They offer opinions, see connections, brim with insight, greet me respectfully entering the classroom. Attendance is perfect. They stay in their seats. They just heard “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .” — the “tale told by an idiot” speech, for my money Shakespeare’s greatest — and, despite their wild youthfulness and being unlettered in Gloom and Fatalism, comprehended the cosmic despair of the doomed Macbeth. Here, we have lively classroom discussions; these adolescents can be sassy, but they’re fun. They read, and love to read – or if they don’t love it, they’re good kids who put their heads down and do it because they’re told to. I can lecture here, if briefly. They listen. They seem happy to be with me, milling about giggling and gossiping at the end of the period. I sat in my squeaky chair feeling myself doting on them the other day, waiting for the bell to ring . . .
And then there’s third period, the ego destroyer.
I’ve taught for 13 years around here, always in the “at risk” community. Haven’t had the luxury of being at a goody-goody charter, or even a big public school, a place that boasts lots of academic performers and well-worn inroads to college. I came to the conclusion some years ago that the hardscrabble youth of the rural ghetto have lower literacy skills and come from a lower-literacy community than kids in the heart of African American Cleveland!
It’s a cowboy thing.
“Hell, I didn’t even finish high school. And what’re they doin’ in there anyhow? They oughta privatize the whole thing, like they were sayin’ on Fox.”
I did my Practicum at JFK High School on Harvard and Lee in Cleveland. An uphill climb, to be sure. But one can’t help but notice that black folks are always talking about reading, and making much of libraries, and going to college.
But I don’t know. Look at the assault on traditional English being promulgated by rap music, a new kind of black lingo which, since I became an English teacher, I find it harder and harder to like.
Where have I got with this intellectual life, this respect for long-form reading? I have become a fussbudget. And no discovery of a clever, transcendent essay by Zadie Smith or mordant Richard Ford novel, no re-absorption in the pleasures of Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist or On the Road or The Catcher in the Rye or Blood Meridian, can allay this terrible alienation. Does this aging egghead have anything to show for his reading life but bags under his eyes?
And yet reading itself imparts a sense of connection. Reading to me is still the main way to get information, so you can know what you’re talking about. Reading fuels aesthetic and political fires.
Finding a good book can become cause for hope. I found Michelle Obama’s memoir. She’s even a better writer than her husband, whose Dreams of My Father I found myself guiltily snoozing through parts of. Becoming is a thing of beauty, bracing, witty, artfully shaped. There’s a war on for the soul of America, and I’m in the business of alliance building. This lady’s a general. We need her now more than ever.
Hear ye, hear ye! Read all about it.